"I hate to see the poor mortal miss out on the rest of the evening," Forrester said, "even if he is asleep now. And I think we may have a use for him."
He gestured gently with one hand.
Gerda and Alvin Sherdlap didn't even notice what was happening. They were much too busy arguing, Alvin claiming that somebody had slapped him on the nose—"and pretty hard, too, let me tell you!"—and Gerda swearing she hadn't done it. The fact that Ed Symes's snores were fading quietly into the distance dawned on neither of them.
But Ed was in flight. He rose five feet above the ground, still unconscious and snoring, and sped unerringly across the air, like a large, fat arrow shot from a bow, in the direction of Forrester and the circle of girls.
He appeared overhead suddenly, and Forrester controlled him so that he drifted downward as delicately as an overweight snowflake, eddying in the slight breeze while the girls gaped at him. Forrester allowed the body to drop the last six inches out of control, so that Ed Symes landed with a heavy thump in the center of the circle. But no harm was done. Ed was very far gone indeed; he merely snored on.
"There," Forrester said.
Millicent blinked. "Where?" she said. "Him?"
"Certainly," Forrester said in a pleased tone. "He's a good deal too noisy, though, don't you think?"
"He snores a lot," Judy offered in a tentative voice, "if that's what you mean, Lord Dionysus."
"Exactly. And I don't see any reason to put up with it. Instead, well just put him in stasis for a little while, and that'll keep him quiet." Again he waved one hand, almost carelessly. Ed Symes's snores vanished immediately, leaving the world a cleaner, purer, quieter place to live in, and his body became as rigid as if he were a statue.
"There," Forrester said again with satisfaction.
"Now what?" Kathy asked.
"Now we straighten him out."
One more pass, and Ed Symes's arms were at his sides, his legs stretched straight out. Only his stomach projected above the rigid lines of his body. Forrester thought he had never seen a more pleasing sight.
Dorothy gasped. "Is he—is he dead?"
Forrester looked at her reprovingly. "Dead? Now what would I do that for, after he's been so helpful and all?"
"I don't know," she muttered.
"Well," Forrester said, "he's not dead. He's just in stasis—in a state of totally suspended animation. As soon as I take the spell off, he'll be all right. But I don't think I'll take it off just yet. I've got plans for my little target-tosser."
He reached over and touched the stiff body. It seemed to rise a fraction of an inch, floating on the tips of the grass. The wind stirred it a little, but it didn't float away.
"I took some of his weight off," Forrester explained, "so he'll be a little easier to handle."
Now Ed Symes was behaving as if he were a statue carved out of cork. With a quick flip, Forrester turned the statue over. The effect was exactly what he wanted. Ed did not touch the grass at any point except one: the point where his protuberant stomach most protruded. Fore and aft, the rest of him was balanced stiffly in the air.
Forrester gazed at the sight, feeling fulfilled. "Now," he said with a note of decision in his voice, "we are going to play Spin-the-Bottle!"
The girls giggled and laughed.
"You mean with him?" Bette said.
Forrester sighed. "That's right," he said patiently. "With him."
He got into position and looked up at the girls. "This one's just for practice, so we can all see how it works." He gave Symes's extended foot a little push.
Whee! he thought. Round and round the gentleman went, spinning quietly on his stomach, revolving in a merry fashion while the girls and Forrester watched silently. At last he slowed and stopped, his nose pointing at Bette and his toes at Dorothy.
"Oh, my!" Dorothy said. "He's pointing at me!"
"He is not!" Bette said decisively. "His head points my way!"
"Temper, temper," Forrester said. "No arguments. That one didn't count, anyhow—it was just to see how he worked. And I do think he works very nicely, don't you?"
"Oh, yes, Lord Dionysus," Kathy said. There was the same undertone in her voice, as if she were silently laughing at everything. She was, he told himself, an extremely unlikable young woman.
The other girls agreed in a chorus. They were still studying the stiff body of Ed Symes. His stomach had made a little depression in the grass as he whirled, and he was now nicely bedded down for a real spin. Forrester rubbed his hands together.
"Fine," he said. "Now, all of you are going to be judges."
"Me, too?" Bette asked.
Forrester nodded. "The head will be the determining factor. If our little Mr. Bottle's head points to any one of you, that is the one I'll choose first."
"See?" Bette said. "I told you it was his head."
"Well, I couldn't tell before anybody said so," Dorothy said. "And anyhow, I—"
"Now, now, girls," Forrester said, feeling momentarily like a Girl Scout troop leader. "Let's listen to the rules, shall we? And then we can get down to playing the game." He took a deep breath. "Isn't this fun?"
The girls giggled.
"Good," Forrester said. "If Mr. Bottle's head ends up between two of you, then the other five girls will have to decide which girl the head's nearer to. The two girls involved will remain absolutely quiet during the judging, and if the other five can't come to a unanimous agreement, we'll spin Mr. Bottle again. Understand?"
"You mean if the head points at me, I get picked," Bette said. "And if the head goes in between me and somebody else, all the other girls have to decide who gets picked."
It was a masterly summation.
"Right," Forrester said. "I'm going to give Mr. Bottle a spin. This one counts. We'll have the second spin, and the rest of them, later."
"Gee!" Millicent whispered. "Isn't this exciting?"
Forrester ignored the comment. "And remember, I give you my word as a God that I will not interfere in any way with the workings of chance. Is that clearly understood?"
The girls murmured agreement.
"Now," Forrester said, "all you girls get into a nice circle. I'll stand outside."
The girls took a minute or two arranging themselves in a circle, arguing about who was going to sit next to whom, and whose very proximity was bound to bring bad luck. The argument gave Forrester a chance to check on Gerda again. She was whispering softly to Alvin, but they weren't touching each other. Forrester turned up his hearing to get a better idea of what was going on.
They had progressed, in the usual manner, from argument to life-history. Gerda was telling Alvin all about her past.
"... but don't misunderstand me, Alvin. It's just that I was in love with a very fine young man. An Athenan, he was. A wonderful man, really wonderful. But he—he was killed in a subway accident some months ago."
"Gosh," Alvin said. "I'm sorry."
"I—I have to tell you this, Alvin, so you'll understand. I still love him. He was wonderful. And until I get over it, I simply can't ..."
Feeling both ashamed of himself and pleased, as well as sorry for the poor girl, Forrester quit listening. The Gods had arranged his simulated death, which, of course, had been a necessity. His disappearance had to be explained somehow. But he didn't like the idea of Gerda having to suffer so much.
My God! Forrester thought. She still loves me!
It was the first time he had ever heard her say so, flatly, right out in the open. He wanted to bound and leap and cavort—but he couldn't. He had to go back to his seven beautiful girls.
He had never felt less like it in his life.
But at least, he consoled himself, Gerda was keeping Alvin at arm's length. She was being faithful to his memory.
Faithful—because she loved him.
Grimly, he turned back to the girls. "Well, are we all ready now?"
Kathy looked up at him brightly. "Lord Dionysus, it's so dark I can't even see for sure what's going on. How can we do any judging, if we can't see?"
Forrester cursed Kathy for pointing out the flaw in his arrangements. Then, making a nice impartial job of it, he cursed himself for forgetting that what was perfectly visible to him was dark night to mortals.
"We can clear that up," he said quickly. "As a matter of fact, I was just getting around to it. We will now proceed to shed a little light on the subject—said subject being our old friend Mr. Bottle."
The trick had been taught to him by Venus, but he'd never had a chance to practice it. This was his first real experience with it, and he could only hope that it went off as it was supposed to.
He stepped into the middle of the circle, near Ed Symes's stiff body and held his right hand above his head, thumb and forefinger spread an inch apart and the other three fingers folded into his palm.
Then he concentrated.
A long second ticked by, while Forrester tried to apply even more neural pressure. Then ...
A small ball of light appeared between his thumb and forefinger, a yellow, cold sphere of fire that shed its radiance over the whole group. Carefully, he withdrew his hand, not daring to breathe. The ball of yellow fire remained in position, hanging in mid-air.
The muffled gasp from the circle of girls was, Forrester told himself, a definite tribute.
"Now don't worry about it, girls," he said. "That light's only visible to the eight of us. Nobody else can see it."
There was another little series of gasps.
Forrester grinned. "Can everybody see each other?"
A murmur of agreement.
"Can everybody see Mr. Bottle here?"
"In that case, let's go." He stepped outside the circle of girls, reached in again for Ed Symes's foot, and set the gentleman spinning once more.
Symes spun with a blinding speed, making a low, whistling noise. Forrester watched the body spin dizzily, just as anxious as the girls were to find out who the first winner was going to be. He thought of Millicent, who chewed gum and made it pop. He thought of Bette, the inveterate explainer and double-take expert. He tried to think of Dorothy and Jayne and Beverly and Judy, but the thought of Kathy, irritating and uncomfortable and too damned bright for her own good, got annoyingly in the way.
He was rather glad he had promised not to use his powers on the spinning figure. He was not at all sure which one of the girls he would have picked for Number One.
And he had, after all, given his word as a God. True, he wasn't quite a God, only a demi-Deity. But he did feel that Dionysus might object to his name being used in vain. A promise, he told himself sternly and with some relief, was a promise.
After some time, Mr. Ed (Bottle) Symes began to slow perceptibly. The whistling died as Symes began rotating about his abdominal axis at a more and more leisurely rate. Seconds passed. Symes faced Bette ... Millicent ... Kathy ... Judy ... Bette again ...
Forrester watched, fascinated.
Finally, Symes came to a halt. All the elaborate instructions in case the Bottle ended up pointing between two girls had been, Forrester saw, totally unnecessary. Symes's head was pointing at one girl, and one girl alone.
She gave a little squeal of delight. The others began chorusing their congratulations at once, looking no more convincing than the runners-up in any beauty contest. Their smiles appeared to have been glued on loosely, and their voices lacked a certain something. Possibly it was sincerity.
"All right, that's it for now." Forrester turned to the winner. "My congratulations," he said, wondering just what he was supposed to say. Not finding any appropriate words, he turned back to the group of six losers. "The rest of you girls can do me a big favor. Go get a couple of the Myrmidons to protect you, hunt around for the nearest wine barrel and confiscate it for me. It's been a thirsty day."
"Gee," Jayne said. "Sure we will, Lord Dionysus."
"Now take your time," Forrester said, and the losers all giggled at once, like a trained chorus. Forrester grimaced. "Don't come back till you find a barrel. Then we'll play the game again."
In a disappointed fashion, the six of them trooped off into the darkness and vanished to mortal eyes. Forrester watched them go and then turned to the winner, feeling just a little uncertain.
"Well, Kathy," he started. "I—"
She flung herself on him with the avid girlishness of a Bengal tiger. "I have dreamed of this night since I was but a child! At last I am in your arms! I love you! Take me! I am yours, all yours!"
"That's nice," Forrester said, taken far aback by the girl's sudden onslaught. His immediate impulse was to unwind Kathy and set her back on her own feet, some little distance away, after which he could start again on a more leisurely basis. After all, he told himself, people ought to spend more time getting to know each other.
But he remembered, just in time, that he was Dionysus. He conquered his first impulse and put his arms around her. As he did so, he discovered that his face was being covered with kisses. Kathy was murmuring little indistinct terms of endearment into his ear every time she reached it en route from one side of his face to the other.
Forrester swallowed hard, tightened his grip and planted his lips firmly on Kathy's. A blaze of startling heat shot through him.
In a small corner at the back of his mind, a scroll unrolled. On it was written what Vulcan had told him about his mental attitude changing after Investiture. When he had been plain William Forrester, an attack like the one Kathy was making on him had pretty much chilled him for a while. But now he found himself definitely rising to the occasion.
There was a passion to her kiss that he had never felt before, a rising tide of flame that threatened to char him. The movement of her mouth on his sent new fires burning throughout his body, and as her hands moved on him he was awakened to a new world, a world of consuming desires.
He wished his own clothing away, and fumbled for a second at the two fastenings that held Kathy's chiton in place. Then it was gone and there was nothing between them. They met, flesh to flesh, in a fiery embrace that grew as he forced her down and she responded eagerly, wildly, to his every motion. His lips traveled over her; her entire body was drowning him once and for all in an unbelievable red haze, unlike anything he had ever before experienced ... a great wave of passion that went on and on, rising to a peak he had never dreamed of until his body shivered with the sensations, and he pressed on, rising still higher in an ecstasy beyond measure....
His last spasm of tension turned out the God-light.
* * * * *
She lay in his arms on the grass, holding him almost as tightly as he held her. He felt exhausted, but he knew perfectly well that he wasn't. A God was a God, after all, and Kathy was only the hors d'oeuvres of a seven-course dinner.
"You're wonderful," Kathy said in a soft whisper at his ear. "Absolutely wonderful. More wonderful than I could ever dream. I—"
She was interrupted by a strange, harsh voice that bellowed from somewhere nearby.
"All right, bitch!" it said. "Get the hell up from there! And you too, buster!"
Forrester jerked his head up in astonishment and froze. Kathy looked up, fright written all over her face.
The man standing over them in the darkness looked like a prize-fighter, one who had taken a number of beatings, but always given better than he had received. His arms were akimbo, his feet planted as firmly as if he were a particularly stubborn brand of tree. He glared down at them, his face expressive of anger, hatred—and, Forrester thought dully, a complete lack of respect for his God.
The man barked: "You heard what I said! On your feet, buster! If I have to kick your teeth in, I want to do it when you're standing up!"
Forrester's jaw dropped. Then, as the initial shock left him, anger boiled in to take its place. He toyed with the idea of blasting this mortal who showed such disrespect to a God. He sprang to his feet, ready to move, and then stopped.
Maybe the man was crazy. Maybe he was just some poor soul who wasn't responsible for his own actions. It would be merciful, Forrester thought, to find out first, and blast the intruder afterward.
He looked around. Twenty yards away, the encircling Myrmidons still stood, their backs to the scene, as if nothing at all were going on.
Forrester blinked. "How'd you get in here, anyway?"
The man barked a laugh. "None of your business." He turned to Kathy, who had devoted the previous few seconds to getting her chiton on again. Hurriedly, Forrester wished back his own costume. Kathy got up, staring straight back at the intruder. Fear was gone from her face, and a kind of calmness that Forrester had never seen before possessed her now.
"So!" the intruder bellowed. "The minute my back is turned, off you go! By the Stars and Galaxy, I—I don't know what to call you! You're worse than your predecessor! Can't turn anything down! You—"
"Now wait!" Forrester bellowed in his most Godlike voice. "Just hold still there! Do you know who you're talking to? How dare you—"
And Kathy interrupted him. Forrester stood mute as she stripped the stranger with a voice like scalding acid. "Listen, you," she said, pointing a finger at the man. "Who do you think you are—my husband?"
"By the Stars—" the stranger began.
"Don't bother trying to scare me with your big mouth," Kathy went on imperturbably. "You don't mean a thing to me and you can't order me around. What's more, you know it. You're not my husband, you big thug—and you're never going to be. I'll sleep with whomever I please, and whenever I please, and wherever I please, and that's the way things are going to be. After all, lard-head, it's my job, isn't it? Got any questions?"
Forrester began to wonder just what he had managed to walk into now. But that was a detail. The important thing was that his Godhood had been grossly, unbelievably insulted—and at a damned inconvenient time, too!
He stepped between Kathy and the intruder, his eyes flashing fire. "Do you know who I am? Do you know that—"
"Of course he knows," Kathy put in abruptly. "And if you don't want to get hurt, I'd advise you to stay out of this little quarrel."
Forrester turned and stared at her.
What the everlasting bloody hell was going on?
But there wasn't any time to think. The intruder put his face up near Forrester's and glared at him. "Sure I know who you are, buster," he said. "You're a wise guy. You're a Johnny-come-lately. And I know what I ought to do with you, too—take you apart, limb by limb!"
That did it. Forrester, seeing several shades of red, decided that no God could possibly object if this ugly blasphemer were blasted off the face of the Earth. He raised a hand.
And Kathy grabbed it. "Don't!" she said in a frightened tone.
The intruder grinned wolfishly at him. "Pay no attention to Little Miss Sacktime over there, Forrester. You go right ahead and try it! All I need is an excuse to vaporize you. Just one tiny little excuse—and I'll do the job so damn quick, your head won't even have time to start swimming." He set himself. "Go on. Let's see your stuff, Forrester."
Forrester's arm came down, without his being aware of it. There was only room in his mind for one thought.
The intruder had called him Forrester.
Where had he gotten the name?
And, for that matter, how had he seen the two of them in the darkness?
While the questions were still spinning in Forrester's mind, Kathy threw herself forward between him and the stranger. "Ares!" she screamed. "You stupid, jealous idiot! Get some sense into that battle-scarred brain of yours! Are you completely crazy?"
"Now you listen to me—" the stranger began.
"Listen, nothing! If you want to pick a fight, do it with me—I can fight back! But if you lay a hand on Forrester, we'll never find another—"
The stranger reached out casually and clamped one huge paw over her mouth. "Shut up," he said, almost quietly. He glanced at Forrester and went on, in the same tone: "Don't give away everything you've got, chum."
A second passed and then he took the hand away. Kathy said nothing at all for a moment, and then she nodded.
"All right," she said. "You're right. We shouldn't be losing our tempers just now. But I didn't start—"
"Didn't you?" the stranger said.
Kathy shrugged. "Well, never mind it now." She turned to Forrester. "You know who we are now, don't you?"
Forrester nodded very slowly. How else could the man have come through the cordon of Myrmidons and seen them in the darkness? How else would he have dared to face up to Dionysus—confident that he could beat him? And how else could all this argument have gone on without anyone hearing it?
For that matter, why else would the argument have begun—unless the stranger and Kathy were—
"Sure," he said, as if he had known it all along. "You're Mars and Venus."
He could feel cold death approaching.
William Forrester sat, quite alone, in the room which had been given him on Mount Olympus. He stared out of the window, a little smaller than the window in Venus' rooms, at the Grecian plain far below, without actually seeing. There was no vertigo this time; small matters like that couldn't bother him.
The whole room was rather a small one, as Gods' rooms went, but it had the same varicolored shifting walls, the same furniture that appeared when you approached it. Forrester was beginning to get used to it now, and he didn't know if it was going to do him any good.
He peered down, trying to discern the patrolling Myrmidons around the base and lower slopes of the mountain, placed there to discourage overeager climbers from trying to reach the home of the Gods. Of course he couldn't see them, and after a while he lost interest again. Matters were too serious to allow time for that kind of game.
The Autumn Bacchanal was over, a thing of the past, on the way to the distortion of legend. Forrester's greatest triumph had ended—in his greatest fiasco.
He closed his eyes as he sat in his room, the fluctuating colors on the walls going unappreciated. He had nothing to do now except wait for the final judgment of the Gods.
At first he had been terrified. But terror could only last so long, and, as the time ticked by, the idea of that coming judgment had almost stopped troubling his mind. Either he had passed the tests or he hadn't. There was no point in worrying about the inevitable. He felt anesthetized, numb to any sensation of personal danger. There was nothing whatever he could do. The Gods had him; very well, let the Gods worry about what to do with him.
Freed, his mind turned over and over a problem that seemed new to him at first. Gradually, he realized it wasn't new at all; it had been somewhere in the back of his thoughts from the very first, when Venus had told him that he had been chosen as a double for Dionysus, so many months ago. It seemed like years to Forrester, and yet, at the same time, like no more than hours. So much had happened, and so much had changed....
But the question had remained, waiting until he could look at it and work with it. Now he could face that strange doubt in his mind, the doubt that had colored everything since his introduction to the Gods, that had grown as his training in demi-Godhood had progressed, and that was now, for the first time, coming to full consciousness. Every time it had come near the surface, before this day, he had expelled it from his mind, forcefully getting rid of it without realizing fully that he was doing so.
And perhaps, he thought, the doubt had begun even earlier than that. Perhaps he had always doubted, and never allowed himself to think about the doubt. The floor of his mind seemed to open and he was falling, falling....
But where the doubt had begun was unimportant now. It was present, it had grown; that was all that mattered. He could find facts to feed the doubt and strengthen it, and he looked at the facts one by one:
First there was the angry conversation between Mars and Venus, on the night of the Bacchanal.
He could still hear what Mars had said:
"... worse than your predecessor."
And then he'd shut Venus up before she gave away too much—realizing, maybe, that he had given away a good deal himself. That one little sentence was enough to bring everything into question, Forrester thought.
He had wondered why it had been necessary to have a double for Dionysus, but he hadn't actually thought about it; maybe he hadn't wanted to think about it. But now, with the notion of a "predecessor" for Venus in his mind, he had to think about it, and the only conclusion he could come to was a disturbing one. It did more than disturb him, as a matter of fact—it frightened him. He wanted desperately to find some flaw in the conclusion he faced, because he feared it even more than he feared the coming judgment of the Pantheon.
But there wasn't any flaw. The facts meshed together entirely too well to be an accidental pattern.
In the first place, he thought, why had he been picked for the job? He was a nobody, of no importance, with no special gifts. Why did he deserve the honor of taking his place beside Hercules and Achilles and Odysseus and the other great heroes? Forrester knew he wasn't any hero. But what gave him his standing?
And, he went on, there was a second place. In the months of his training he had met fourteen of the Gods—all of them, except for Dionysus. Now, what kind of sense did that make? Anyone who's going to have a double usually trains the double himself, if it's at all possible. Or, at the very least, he allows the double to watch his actions, so that the double can do a really competent job of imitation.
And if an imitation is all that's needed, why not hire an actor instead of a history professor?
Vulcan had told him: "You were picked not merely for your physical resemblance to Dionysus, but your psychological resemblance as well."
That had to be true, if only because, as far as Forrester could see, nobody had the slightest reason to lie about it. But why should it be true? What advantage did the Gods get out of that "psychological resemblance"? All he was supposed to be was a double—and anybody who looked like Dionysus would be accepted as Dionysus by the people. The "psychological resemblance" didn't have a single thing to do with it.
Mars, Venus, Vulcan—even Zeus had dropped clues. Zeus had referred to him as a "substitute for Dionysus."
A substitute, he realized with a kind of horror, was not at all the same thing as a double.
The answer was perfectly clear, but there were even more facts to bolster it. Why had he been tested, for instance, after he had been made a demi-God? In spite of what Vulcan had said, was he slated for further honors if he passed the new tests? He was sure that Vulcan had been telling the truth as far as he'd gone—but it hadn't been the whole truth. Forrester was certain of that now.
And what was it that Venus had said during that argument with Mars? Something about not killing Forrester, because then they would have to "get another—"
No, there was no escape from the simple and obvious conclusion. Dionysus was either missing, which was bad enough, or something much worse.
He was dead.
Forrester shivered. The idea of an immortal God dying was, in one way, as horrible a notion as he could imagine. But in another way, it seemed to make a good deal of sense. As far as plain William Forrester had been concerned, the contradiction in the notion of a dead immortal would have made it ridiculous to start with. But the demi-God Dionysus had a somewhat different slant on things.
After all, as Vulcan had told him, a demi-God could die. And if that was true, then why couldn't a God die too? Perhaps it would take quite a lot to kill a God—but the difference would be one of degree, not of kind.
It seemed wholly logical. And it led, Forrester saw, to a new conclusion, one that required a little less effort to face than he thought it would. It should have shaken the foundations of his childhood and left him dizzy, but somehow it didn't. How long, he asked himself, had he been secretly doubting the fact that the Gods were Gods?
At least in the sense they pretended to be, the "Gods" were not gods at all. They were—something else.
But what? Where did they come from?
Were they actually the Gods of ancient Greece, as they claimed? Forrester wanted to throw that claim out with the rest, but when he thought things over he didn't see why he should. To an almost indestructible being, three thousand years may only be a long time.
So the Gods actually were "Gods," at least as far as longevity went. But the decision didn't get him very far; there were still a lot of questions unanswered, and no way that he could see of answering them.
Or, rather, there was one way, but it was hellishly dangerous. He had no business even thinking about. He was in enough hot water already.
What more harm could he do to his chances? After the Bacchanal fiasco, there was probably a sentence of death hanging over his head anyhow. And they couldn't do any more to him than kill him.
It was ridiculous, he told himself, with a return of caution and sanity. But the notion came back, nagging at his mind, and at last it took a new form.
The Gods had the rest of the information he needed. He had to go to one of them—but which one?
His first thought was Venus. But, after a moment of thought, he ruled her regretfully out as a possibility. After all, there was Mars' mention of her "predecessor." If that meant anything, it meant that the current Venus wasn't the original one. She would have a lot less information than one of the original Gods.
If there were any originals left....
He tabled that thought hurriedly and went on. Vulcan had told him at least a part of the truth, and Vulcan looked like a good bet. Forrester didn't like the idea of bearding the artisan in his workshop; it made him feel uncomfortable, and after a while he put his finger on the reason. His little liaison with Venus made him feel guilty. There was, he knew, no real reason for it. In the first place, he hadn't known the girl was Venus, and in the second place she may not have been the same one who had been Vulcan's original wife, thirty and more centuries ago.
But the guilt remained, and he tabled Vulcan for the time being and went on.
Morpheus, Hera, and most of the others he passed by without a glance; there was no reason for them to dislike him, but there was no reason for comradeship, either. Mars popped into his mind, and popped right out again. That would be putting his head in the lion's mouth with a vengeance.
No, there was only one left, the obvious choice, the one who had helped him throughout his training period—Diana. She genuinely seemed to like him. She was also a good kid. The thought alone was almost enough to make him smile fondly, and would have if he had not remembered the peril he was in.
He turned away from the window to look at the color-swirled wall across the room. He had remained in his room ever since Mars and Venus had brought him back from New York, and he wasn't at all sure that he could leave it. In the normal sense of the word, the place had neither exits nor entrances. The only way of getting in or out of the place was via the Veils of Heaven—matter transmitters, not something supernatural, he realized now.
As far as Forrester knew, they still worked. But the Gods could generate a Veil anywhere, at any time. Forrester, as a demi-God, could only will one into existence on sufferance; he could only work the matter-transmitting Veils if the Gods permitted him to do so. If they didn't, he was trapped.
Well, he told himself, there was one way to find out.
He walked over to the wall and stood a few feet away from it, concentrating in the way he had been taught. He was still slower at it than the Gods themselves, and hadn't developed the knack of forming a Veil as he walked toward the place where he wanted it to be, as they had.
But he knew he could do it—if he was still allowed to.
Minutes went by.
Then, as the blue sheet of neural energy flickered into being, Forrester slumped in sudden relief. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes.
The Veil was there—but was it what he hoped, or a trick? Possibly he could focus the other terminal where he wanted it, but there was also the chance that the Gods had set the thing up so that, when he stepped through, he would be standing in the Court of the Gods facing a tribunal for which he was totally unprepared.
It would be just like the Pantheon, he thought, to pull a lousy trick like that.
But there was no point in dithering. If death was to be his fate, that would be that. He could do nothing at all by sitting in his room and waiting for them to come and get him.
He focused the exit terminal in Diana's apartment. There was no way of knowing whether the focus worked or not until he stepped through.
He opened his eyes and walked into the Veil.
He felt almost disappointed when he looked around him. He had steeled himself to do great battle with the Gods—and, instead, he was where he had wanted to be, in Diana's apartment.
She was standing with her back to him, and Forrester didn't make a sound, not wanting to startle the Goddess. She was totally unclad, her glorious body shining in the light of the room, her blue-black hair unbound and falling halfway down her gently curved back. But she must have heard him somehow, for she turned, and for half a second she stood facing him.
Forrester did not move. He couldn't even breathe.
Every magnificent curve was highlighted in a frozen tableau.
Then there was a sudden flash of white, and she was clad in a clinging chiton which, Forrester saw, served only to remind one of what one had recently seen. It worked very well, although Forrester did not think he had any need for an aid to his memory.
"My goodness!" Diana said. "You shouldn't surprise a girl like that! I mean, you really gave me a shock, kid!"
Forrester took his first breath. "Well," he said, "I could be dishonest, not to mention ungallant, and tell you I was sorry."
"But?" Diana said.
"Being of sound mind and sound body, I'm a long way from being sorry."
And Diana dropped her eyes and blushed.
Forrester could barely believe it.
But it did show a part of the Goddess's personality that was entirely new to him. He was sure that any of the Gods or Goddesses could sense when a Veil of Heaven was forming near them, and get prepared before it was well enough developed to allow for passage. But Diana—who was, after all, one of the traditionally virgin Goddesses, like Pallas Athena—had chosen to pretend surprise.
Forrester had a further hunch, too. He thought she might have deliberately vanished her chiton only a second or so before he entered. And that put a different—and a very interesting—face on things.
Not to mention, he thought, an entire figure.
But he didn't say anything. That wasn't his main business in Diana's apartment. Instead, he watched her smile briskly and say: "Well, you're here, anyhow, kid, and I guess that's enough for me. Want a drink? I could whip up some nectar—and maybe an ambrosia sandwich?"
"I'll take the drink," Forrester said. "I'm not really hungry, thanks."
Diana held out her hands, fingers curved inward, and a crystal cup of clear, golden liquid appeared in each—matter transmission, of course, not magic. She handed one over to Forrester, who took it and looked the Goddess straight in the eyes.
"Thanks," he said. "Diana, I've got some questions to ask you, and I hope I'll get the answers."
She touched the rim of her cup to his. Her voice was very soft, but she didn't hesitate in the least. "I'll answer any questions I have to. Sit down."
They found chairs along the walls of the room and sat facing one another. Forrester took a sip of his drink, settled back, and tried to think where to begin. Well, God or no God, Zeus had the key to that one. He had said it years ago, and it had passed almost into legend:
"Begin at the beginning, go on until you reach the end, and then stop."
Very well, Forrester thought. He cleared his throat. Diana looked at him inquiringly.
"I don't know how far into the noose I'm putting my head with this one, Diana," he said. "But I trust you—and I've got to ask somebody."
"Go ahead," she said quietly.
"First question. The original Dionysus is dead, isn't he?"
She paused for a moment before answering. "Yes, he is."
"And I was scheduled to take his place."
"As a full God," Forrester said.
There was a little silence.
"Diana," Forrester said, "what are the Gods?"
She got up and crossed to the window. Looking out, she said: "Before I answer that, I want you to tell me what you think we are."
"Men and women," he said. "More or less human, like myself. Except you've somehow managed to get so far ahead of any kind of science Earth knows that, even today, your effects can only be explained as 'magic' or 'miracle.'"
"How could we get that far ahead of you?"
Forrester took a leap in the dark to the only conclusion he could see. "You're not from Earth," he said. "You're from another planet." The words sounded strange in his own ears—but Diana didn't even act surprised.
"That's right," she said. "We're from another planet—or, rather, from several other planets."
"Several?" Forrester exclaimed. "But—oh. I see. Pan, for instance—"
Diana nodded. "Pan isn't even really humanoid. His home is a planet where his type of goatlike life evolved. Neither Pluto nor Neptune is humanoid, either; they're a little closer than Pan, but not really very close when you get a good look. The rest of the Gods are humanoid—but not human."
"Wait a minute," Forrester said. "Venus is human. Or, anyhow, she's a replacement, just the way I was slated to be a replacement for Dionysus."
Diana drained her cup and clapped her hands together on it. The cup vanished. Forrester did the same to his own. "Correct," she said. "Venus just—just disappeared once. They got an Etruscan girl to replace her. She's not the only replacement, either."
Forrester stared. "Who else?"
"You tell me."
He thought the list of Gods over. "Zeus," he said.
Diana smiled. "Yes, Zeus is a long way from the great hero of the legends, isn't he? Using the old calendar, Zeus died in about 1100 B.C., not too long after the close of the Trojan War. As far as anybody knows, Neptune did the actual killing, but it's pretty clear that the original idea wasn't his."
"Hera's," Forrester guessed.
"Of course," Diana said. "What she wanted was a figurehead she could control—and that's what she got. Though I'm not sure she's entirely happy with the change. If the original Zeus was a little harder to control, at least he seems to have had an original thought now and again."
Forrester sat quietly for a time, waiting for the shock to pass. "What about Dionysus?"
Diana shrugged. "He—well, as far as anybody's ever been able to tell, it was suicide. About three years ago, and it drove Hera pretty wild, trying to find a substitute in a hurry. I suspect he was bored with the wine, women and song. He'd had a long time of it. And, too, he'd had some little disagreements with Hera. As you may have gathered, she is not exactly a safe person to have as an enemy. He probably figured she'd get him sooner or later, so he might as well save her the trouble."
"And Hera had to rush to get a replacement? Why couldn't there just have been some sort of explanation, while the rest of you ran things?"
"Because the rest of us couldn't run things. Not for long, anyhow. It's all a question of power."
"Power?" Forrester said.
"Everything we have," Diana said, "is derived, directly or indirectly, from the workings of one machine. Though 'machine' is a long way from the right word for it—it bears about as much resemblance to what you think of as a machine as a television set does to a window. There just isn't a word for it in any language you know."
"And all the Gods have to work the machine at once?"
"Something like that." Diana came back from the window and sat down facing him again. "It operates through the nervous systems of the beings in circuit with it, each one of them in contact with one of the power nodes of the machine. And if one of the nodes is unoccupied, then the machine's out of balance. It will run for a while, but eventually it will simply wreck itself. Every one of the fifteen nodes has to be occupied. Otherwise—chaos."
Forrester nodded. "So when Dionysus died—"
"We had to find a replacement in a hurry. The machine's been running out of balance for about as long as it can stand right now."
Forrester closed his eyes. "I'm not sure I get the picture."
"Well, look at it this way: suppose you have a wheel."
"All right," Forrester said obligingly. "I have a wheel."
"And this wheel has fifteen weights on it. They're spaced equally around the rim, and the wheel's revolving at high speed."
Forrester kept his eyes closed. When he had the wheel nicely spinning, he said: "Okay. Now what?"
"Well," Diana said, "as long as the weights stay in place, the wheel spins evenly. But if you remove one of the weights, the wheel's out of balance. It starts to wobble."
Forrester took one of the weights (Dionysus, a rather large, jolly weight) off the wheel in his mind. It wobbled. "Right," he said.
"It can take the wobble for a little while. But unless the balance is restored in time, the wheel will eventually break."
Hurriedly, Forrester put Dionysus back on the wheel. The wobble stopped. "Oh," he said. "I see."
"Our power machine works in that sort of way. That is, it requires all fifteen occupants. Dionysus has been dead for three years now, and that's about the outside limit. Unless he's replaced soon, the machine will be ruined."
Forrester opened his eyes. The wheel spun away and disappeared. "So you found me to replace Dionysus. I had to look like him, so the mortals wouldn't see any difference. And the psychological similarity—"
"That's right," Diana said. "It's the same as the wheel again. If you remove a weight, you've got to put back a weight of the same magnitude. Otherwise, the wheel's still out of balance."
"And since the power machine works through the nervous system—"
"The governing factor is that similarity. You've got to be of the same magnitude as Dionysus. Of course, you don't have to be an identical copy. The machine can be adjusted for slight differences."
"I see," Forrester said. "And the fifteen power nodes—" Another idea occurred to him. "Wait a minute. If there are only fifteen power nodes, then how come there were so many different Gods and Goddesses among the Greeks? There were a lot more than fifteen back then."
"Of course there were," Diana said, "but they weren't real Gods. As a matter of fact, some of them didn't really exist."
Forrester frowned. "How's that again?"
"They were just disguises for one of the regular fifteen. Aesculapius, for instance, the old God of medicine, was Hermes/Mercury in disguise—he took the name in honor of a physician of the time. He would have raised the man to demi-Godhood, but Aesculapius died unexpectedly, and we thought taking his 'spirit' into the Pantheon was good public relations."
"How about the others?" Forrester said. "They weren't all disguises, were they?"
"Of course not. Some of them were demi-Gods, just like yourself. Their power was derived, like yours, from the Pantheon instead of directly through the machine. And then there were the satyrs and centaurs, and suchlike beings. That was public relations, too—mainly Zeus' idea, I understand. The original Zeus, of course."
"Of course," Forrester said.
"The satyrs and such were artificial life-forms, created, maintained and controlled by the machine itself. It's equipped with what you might call a cybernetic brain—although that's pretty inadequate as a description. Vulcan could do a better job of explaining."
"Perfectly all right. I don't understand that kind of thing anyhow."
"Well, in that case, let me put it this way. The machine controlled these artificial forms, but they could be taken over by any one of the Gods or demi-Gods for special purposes. As I say, it was public relations—and a good way to keep the populace impressed—and under control."
"The creatures aren't around nowadays," Forrester pointed out.
"Nowadays we don't need them," Diana said. "There are other methods—better public relations, I suppose."
Forrester didn't know he was going to ask his next question until he heard himself doing so. But it was the question he really wanted to ask; he knew that as soon as he knew he asked it.
"Why?" he said.
Diana looked at him with a puzzled expression. "Why? What do you mean?"
"Why go on being Gods? Why dominate humanity?"
"I suppose I could answer your question with another question—why not? But I won't. Instead, let me remind you of some things. Look what we've done during the last century. The great wars that wrecked Europe—you don't see any possibility of more of those, do you? And the threat of atomic war is gone, too, isn't it?"
"Well, yes," Forrester said, "but—"
"But we still have wars," Diana said. "Sure we do. The male animal just wouldn't be happy if he didn't have a chance to go out and get himself blown to bits once in a while. Don't ask me to explain that—I'm not a male."
Forrester agreed silently. Diana was not a male. It was the most understated statement he had ever heard.
"But anyhow," Diana said, "they want wars, so they have wars. Mars sees that the wars stay small and keep within the Martian Conventions, though, so any really widespread damage or destruction, or any wanton attacks on civilians, are a thing of the past. And it's not only wars, kid. It's everything."
"What do you mean, everything?"
"Man needs a god, a personal god. When he doesn't have one ready to hand, he makes one up—and look at the havoc that has caused. A god of vengeance, a god who cheers you on to kill your enemies.... You've studied history. Tell me about the gods of various nations. Tell me about Thor and Baal and the original bloodthirsty Yahweh. People need gods."
"Now wait a minute," Forrester objected. "The Chinese—"
"Oh, sure," Diana said. "There are exceptions. But you can't bank on the exceptions. If you want a reasonably safe, sane and happy humanity, then you'd better make sure your gods are not going to start screaming for war against the neighbors or against the infidels or against—well, against anybody and everybody. There's only one way to make sure, kid. We've found that way. We are the Gods."
Forrester digested that one slowly. "It sounds great, but it's pretty altruistic. And while I don't want to impugn anybody's motives, it does seem to me that—"
"That we ought to be getting something out of it ourselves, above and beyond the pure joy of helping humanity. Sure. You're perfectly right. And we do get something out of it."
Diana grinned. She looked more like a tomboy than ever before. "Fun," she said. "And you know it. Don't tell me you didn't get a kick out of playing God at the Bacchanal."
"Well," Forrester confessed, "yes." He sighed. "And I guess that Bacchanal is going to be the one really high spot in a very shortened sort of life."
Diana sat upright. "What are you talking about?"
"What else would I be talking about? The Bacchanal. You know what happened. You must know—everybody must by now. Mars is probably demanding my head from Hera right now. Unless he's got more complicated ideas like taking me apart limb by limb. I remember he mentioned that."
Diana stood up and came over to Forrester. "Why would Mars do something like that and especially now? And what makes you think Hera would go along with him if he did?"
"Why not? Now that I've failed my tests—"
"Failed?" Diana cried. "You haven't failed!"
Forrester stood up shakily. "Of course I have. After what happened at the Bacchanal, I—"
"Don't pay any attention to that," Diana said. "Mars is a louse. Always has been, I hear. Nobody likes him. As a matter of fact, you've just passed your finals. The last test was to see if you could figure out who we were—and you've done that, haven't you?"
There was a long, taut silence.
Then Diana laughed. "Your face looks the way mine must have, over three thousand years ago!"
"What are you talking about?" Still dazed, he wasn't quite sure he had heard her rightly.
"When they told me the same thing. After the original Diana was killed in a 'hunting accident'—frankly, she seems to have been too independent to suit Hera—and I passed my own finals, I—"
"Now don't look at me like that," Diana said. "And pull yourself together, because we've got to get to the Final Investiture. But it's all true. I'm a substitute too."
The Great God Dionysus, Lord of the Vine, Ruler of the Revels, Master of the Planting and the Harvest, Bestower of the Golden Touch, Overseer of the Poor, Comforter of the Worker and Patron of the Drunkard, sat silently in a cheap bar on Lower Third Avenue, New York, slowly imbibing his seventh brandy-and-soda. It tasted anything but satisfactory as it went down; he preferred vodka or even gin, but after all, he asked himself, if a God couldn't be loyal to his own products, then who could?
He was dressed in an inexpensive brown suit, and his face did not look like that of Dionysus, or even of William Forrester. Though neatly turned out, he looked a little like an out-of-work bookkeeper. But it was obvious that he hadn't been out of work for very long.
Hell of a note, he thought, when a God has to skulk in some cheap bar just because some other God has it in for him.
But that, unfortunately, was the way Mars was. It didn't matter to him that none of what happened had been Forrester's fault. In the first place, Forrester hadn't known that the girl at the Bacchanal had been Venus until it was much too late for apologies. In the second place, he hadn't even picked her; he'd kept his promise not to use his powers on the spinning figure of Mr. Bottle Symes. But Venus had made no such promise. Venus had rigged the game.
But try explaining that to Mars.
He didn't seem to mind what went on at the Revels of Aphrodite—being Goddess of Love was her line of work, and even Mars appeared to recognize that much. But he didn't like the idea of any extracurricular work, especially with other Gods. And if anything occurred, he, Mars, was sure damned well going to find out about it and see that something was done about it, yes, sir.
Forrester finished his drink and stared at the empty glass. It had all begun on the day of his Final Investiture, and he had gone through every event in memory, over and over. Why, he didn't know. But it was something to do while he hid.
It hadn't been anywhere near as simple as the Investiture he had gone through to become a demi-God. All fourteen of the other Gods had been there this time; a simple quorum wasn't enough. Pluto, with his dead-black, light-absorbent skin casting a shade of gloom about him, had slouched into the Court of the Gods, looking at everybody and everything with lackluster eyes. Poseidon/Neptune had come in more briskly, smelling of fish, his skin pale green and glistening wet, his fingers and toes webbed and his eyes bulging and wide. Phoebus Apollo had strolled in, looking authentically like a Greek God, face and figure unbelievably perfect, and a pleased, stupid smile spread all over his countenance. Hermes/Mercury, slim and wily, with a foxy face and quick movements, had slipped in silently. And all the others had been there, too. Mars looked grim, but when Forrester was formally proposed for Godhood, Mars made no objection.
The entire Pantheon had then gone single-file through a Veil of Heaven to a room Forrester just couldn't remember fully. At the time, his eyes simply refused to make sense out of the place. Now, of course, he understood why: it didn't really exist in the space-time framework he was used to. Instead, it was partially a four-dimensional pseudo-manifold superimposed on normal space. If not perfectly simple, at least the explanation made matters rational rather than supernatural. But, at the time, everything seemed to take place in a chaotic dream world where infinite distance and the space next to him seemed one and the same. He knew then why Diana had told him that the word "machine" could not describe the Gods' power source.
He had been seated there in the dream room. But it wasn't exactly sitting; every spatial configuration took on strange properties in that pseudo-space, and he seemed to float in a place that had neither dimension nor direction. The other Gods had all seemed to be sitting in front of him, all together and all at once—yet, at the same time, each had been separate and distinct from the others.
He wanted to close his eyes, but he had been warned against doing that. Grimly, he kept them open.
And then the indescribable began to happen. It was as though every nerve in his body had been indissolubly linked to the great source of God-power. It was pure, hellish torture, and at the same time it was the most exquisite pleasure he had ever known. He could not imagine how long it went on—but, eventually, it ended.
He was Dionysus/Bacchus.
And then it had been over, and a banquet had been held in his honor, a celebration for the new God. Everyone seemed to enjoy the occasion, and Forrester himself had been feeling pretty good until Mars, smiling a smile that only touched his lips and left his eyes as cold and hard as anything Forrester had ever seen, had come up to him and said softly:
"All right, Dionysus. You're a God now. I didn't touch you before because we needed you. And I don't intend to kill you now; replacements are too hard to find. I'm only going to beat you—to within an inch of your damned immortal life. Just remember that, buster."
And then, the smile still set on his face, he had turned and swaggered away.
Forrester had thought of Vulcan.
Mars wasn't a killer, in spite of his bully-boy tactics. He had too good a military mind to discipline a valuable man to death. But he was more than willing to go as near to that point as possible, if he thought it justified. And what he allowed as justification resided in a code all his own.
"Right" was what was good for Mars. "Wrong" was what disturbed him. That was the code, as simple, as black and white, as you could ask for. Vulcan was one of the results.
Vulcan had been Venus' lawful husband, as far as the laws of the Gods went. That didn't matter to Mars—when he wanted Venus. He had thrashed Vulcan, and the beating had left permanent damage.
The damage was translated into Vulcan's limp. Any God's ability to heal himself through the machine's power was dependent on the God's own mentality and outlook. And Vulcan had never been able to cure his limp; the psychic punishment had been too great.
Forrester ordered another drink and tried to think about something else. The prospect of a fight with Mars was sometimes a little too much for him to handle.
The drink arrived and he sipped at it vacantly, thinking back to Diana and her story of the Gods.
There was one hole in it—a hole big enough to toss Mount Olympus through, he realized. Where had the Gods gone for three thousand years? And how had they gotten to Earth in the first place?
Those two unanswered questions were enough to convince Forrester that, in spite of all he knew, and in spite of the way his new viewpoint had turned his universe upside down in a matter of hours, he still didn't have the whole story. He had to find it—even more so, now, as he began to realize that the human race deserved more than just the "security" and "happiness" that the Gods could give them. It deserved independence, and the chance to make or mar its own future. Protection was all very well for the infancy of a race, but man was growing up now. Man needed to make his own world.
The Gods had no place in that world, Forrester saw. He had to find the answers to all of his questions—and now he thought he knew a way to do it.
"Want another, buddy?"
The bartender's voice roused Forrester from his reverie. He had absent-mindedly finished brandy-and-soda number eight.
"Okay," Forrester said. "Sure." He handed the bartender a ten-dollar bill and got a kind of wry pleasure out of seeing the picture of Dionysus on its face. "Let's have another, but more brandy and less soda this time."
The drink was brought and he sipped at it, looking like any ordinary citizen taking on a small load, but tuned to every fluctuation in the energy levels around him, waiting.
Only a God, he knew, could hurt another God, and even then it took plenty of power to do it. Actually to kill a God required the combined efforts of more than one, under normal circumstances—though one, properly equipped and with some luck, could manage it. As far as his own situation was concerned, Forrester was prepared for a deadly assault from Mars. Maybe Mars didn't intend to kill him, but being maimed for centuries, like Vulcan, was nothing to look forward to, and it was just as well to be on the safe side. Just in case the God of War had managed to get one or two other Gods on his side, Forrester had talked to Diana and Venus, and had their agreement to step in on his side if things got rough, or if Mars tried to pull anything underhanded.
And any minute now....
Suddenly Forrester felt a disturbance in the energy flow around him. Somewhere behind him, invisible to the mortals who occupied the bar, a Veil of Heaven was beginning to form.
With a fraction of a second, Forrester was forming his own. But this time he took a little longer than he had before.
It wasn't the first time he'd had to run. For over a month now, he had been jumping from place to place, all over the world. He had gone to Hong Kong first. When Mars had traced him there and made a grab for him, Forrester had made a quick jump, via Veil, to Durban, South Africa. It had taken Mars all of forty-eight hours to find Forrester hiding in the native quarter, wearing the persona of a Negro laborer. But again Forrester had disappeared, this time reappearing in Lima, Peru.
And so it had gone for five full weeks, with Forrester keeping barely one jump ahead of the God of War.
And, in that month, he had achieved two important things.
First, he had begun to make Mars a little overconfident. By now Mars was fully convinced that Forrester was nothing but a coward, and he was absolutely certain that he could beat the newcomer easily, if he could only come to grips with him.
Second, Forrester had discovered that Mars' basic reflexes were a trifle slower than his own.
If Mars had been able to form his own Veil and step through it in time to sense the last fading glimmers of Forrester's Veil, he would have been able to follow immediately. Instead, he had to go to all the trouble of finding Forrester over and over again. That meant slower reflexes—and that, Forrester thought, might just give him the edge he needed.
But this time, Forrester was going to let Mars follow him—slow reflexes and all. This time, he waited that extra fraction of a second—and then stepped through the Veil.
He was in the middle of a great rain forest. Around him towered trees whose great trunks reached up to a leafy sky. The place was dark; little sunlight came through the roof of leaves and curling vines. A bird screamed somewhere in the distance, sounding like a lost soul in agony; the sound was repeated, and then there was silence.
Forrester was exactly where he had intended to be: in the middle of the Amazon jungle.
He had time for one look around. Then Mars stepped out of a shimmering Veil only yards away from where Forrester was standing. Immediately, Forrester felt Mars throw out a suppressor field that would keep him from forming another Veil. He did the same thing. Now, as long as both held their respective fields, neither could leave.
"Greetings," Forrester said.
The bird screamed again. Mars ignored it.
"You're just a little too slow," he said, grinning. "And now, buster, you're going to get it—and get it good."
"Who?" Forrester said. "Me?"
Mars hissed his breath in and fired a blast of blue-white energy that would have drilled through a foot of armor plate. But Forrester blocked it; the splatter of free energy struck at the nearby trees, sending them crashing to the ground. A small blaze started.
Forrester followed the blow with one of his own, but Mars parried quickly. A few more little fires began in the vicinity. Then Mars bellowed and charged.
By the time he reached the spot where Forrester had been, Forrester was fifty feet in the air, standing with his arms folded and looking down in an interested manner.
"You ought to watch out," he said. "You might stumble into a Venus Flycatcher down there. I mean besides the one you've got already."
Mars' mouth dropped open. He gave vent to an inarticulate roar of rage and leaped into the air. As he rose toward Forrester, the defender closed his eyes and changed shape. He became a rock and dropped. He bounced off Mars' rising forehead with a great noise.
Mars roared and dived for the stone—and found himself holding a large, angry tiger.
But an old trick like that didn't fool Mars. Tiger-Forrester, suddenly finding himself fighting with another tiger as ferocious as himself, began clawing and biting his way free in a frenzy of panic. He managed to make it just long enough to become a stone again, dropping toward the Earth.
For a moment, the other tiger seemed uncertain. Then, catching sight of the falling stone, he became an eagle, and went after it with a scream, claws outstretched and a glitter of hatred in the slitted eyes.
Forrester reached the ground first. The eagle braked madly, trying to escape a giant Kodiak bear. Forrester stood on his hind legs and battered the air with great, murderous paws. Mars scooted upward, already changing into something capable of coping with the bear. A huge, bat-winged dragon, breathing barrels of smoke, flapped in the air, looking all around for its opponent. It did not notice Forrester scurrying away in the shape of an ant through the leaves and thick humus of the jungle floor.
By now, the air was becoming smoky and the flames were licking up the sides of trees all through the vicinity, and racing along the giant vines that curled around them. The dragon belched more smoke, adding to the general confusion, and roared in a voice like thunder:
"Coward! Dionysus! Come out and fight!"
There was an instant of crackling silence.
Then Forrester stepped out from behind a blazing tree. He, too, was a dragon.
Mars snarled, breathed smoke and made a power dive. Forrester dodged and the fangs of the monster missed him by inches. Mars sank claw-deep into the ground, and Forrester slammed the War God on the side of his head with one mighty forepaw. Mars blew out a cloud of evil-smelling smoke and managed to jerk himself free. He leaped to all four feet, glaring at Forrester with great, bulging, hate-filled eyes.
"Man to man, you bastard!" he said in a flame-filled roar.
Forrester leaped back to avoid being scorched. He poured out some smoke of his own. Mars coughed.
"Damn it, no more shape-changing!" the War God thundered.
"Fair enough!" Forrester shouted. He changed back to his Dionysian form, circling warily until Mars had followed suit. Then the two began to close in slowly.
Around them the forest burned, vegetation even on the swampy ground catching fire as the entire vicinity crackled and hissed with heat. Neither of them seemed to take any notice of the fact.
Mars was a trained boxer and wrestler, Forrester knew. But it was probably a good many centuries since he'd had any real workouts, and Forrester was counting heavily on slowed-down reflexes. Those would give him a slight edge.
At any rate, he hoped so.
The circling ceased as Mars leaped forward suddenly and lashed out with a right to the jaw that could end the fight. But Forrester moved his head aside just in time and the fist glanced off his cheek. He staggered back just as Mars followed with a left jab to the belly.
Forrester clamped down on the War God's wrist and twisted violently, pulling Mars on past him. The War God, caught off balance, lunged forward, tripping over his own feet, and almost fell as he went by. Forrester, grinning savagely, brought his right hand down on the back of Mars' neck with a blow whose force would have killed an elephant outright.
Mars, however, was no mere elephant. He grunted and went down on his hands and knees, shaking his head groggily. But he wasn't out. Not quite.
Forrester doubled up his fist as Mars tried to rise, and came down again with all the force he could muster, squarely on his opponent's neck.
There was a satisfyingly loud crack, audible, even in the roar of the burning forest. Mars collapsed to the ground, smothering small fires beneath his bulk. Forrester leaped on top of him and grabbed his head, beard with one hand and hair with the other. He twisted and the War God screamed in agony. Forrester relaxed the pressure.
"All right, now," he said through clenched teeth. "Your neck's broken, and all I've got to do is twist enough to sever your spinal column. You'll be crippled for as long as Vulcan has—maybe longer."
Mars shrieked again. "I yield! I yield!"
Forrester held on. "Not just yet you don't," he said grimly. "I want some information, and I'm going to get it out of you if I have to wring them out vertebra by vertebra."
Mars tried to buck. Forrester twisted again and the War God subsided, breathing hard. At last he muttered: "What do you want to know?"
"Why did you and the other Gods leave Earth for three thousand years? And where did you come from in the first place? I want the real reason, chum." He applied a little pressure, just as a reminder.
"I'll tell you!" Mars screamed. "I'll tell you!"
And as the roaring flames crackled in the Amazon forest, the agonized Mars began to talk.
Zeus, Venus, Diana and Forrester sat in the Court of the Gods, listening to a large, blue-skinned individual with bright red eyes and two long white fangs coming from a lipless mouth. The eyes were like a cat's, with slitted pupils, and the general expression on the individual's face was one of feral hatred and bestial madness. However, as he had explained, he was not responsible for the arrangement of his features. He was, he kept saying, only interested in the general welfare. What was more, it was his business to be interested. He was, as a matter of fact, a cop: Bor Mellistos, of the Interstellar Police.
"My rank," he had told them mildly, "is about the equivalent of your Detective Inspector."
"Technically," he was saying now, "you are all four guilty of being accessories—as I understand your local law phrases it. However—"
He smiled. It made him look unbelievably horrible. Forrester tried not to pay any attention to it.
"However," he went on, "in view of the fact that none of you could possibly have known that you were, in fact, accessories—that is, that you were dealing with a criminal group, if you understand me—plus the fact that Mr. Forrester, as soon as he did discover the facts, called us at once through the power machine—I feel that we can overlook your part in the matter."
Venus frowned. "Wait a minute. I'm not sure I understand this at all. What crime are the Gods supposed to have committed?"
"Not crime, miss," Bor Mellistos said. His eyes twinkled. Forrester gulped and turned away. "Crimes. Misuse of a neural power machine, for one—and the domination and enslavement of a less advanced intelligent culture for another. Both those are very serious crimes."
"Less advanced culture?" Forrester said. "You mean us?"
"I'm afraid so, sir," Bor Mellistos said. "You see, all the members of my culture are attuned to the power nodes of one neural machine or another, but this power is not meant to be misused. We have been searching for this group for a long time now."
"And you first got wind of them on Earth about three thousand years ago?"
"A little more than that, actually," Bor Mellistos said, "if you don't mind the correction."
"Not at all," Forrester said, looking at the fangs of the Detective Inspector.
"We were alerted after the radiations had been coming in for some time. The search for this group wasn't nearly as urgent then."
"And that's why they had to go into hiding?" Diana asked.
"Correct, miss," Bor Mellistos said. "The only one we managed to catch was the woman calling herself Aphrodite, or Venus." He looked at the substitute Venus. "That's the one you replaced, miss."
"How did you catch her?" Forrester pursued.
"Well," Bor Mellistos said, turning a faint shade of orange with embarrassment, "she was—ah—engaged in a secret liaison with a mortal at the time. Knowing that two of the other gentlemen would be furious with her if they discovered this fact—"
"Mars and Vulcan," Forrester supplied.
"Quite correct, sir," Bor Mellistos said. "Knowing, as I say, that they would be furious, she had taken special pains to hide herself. When the alarm reached the others that we were coming, they could not warn her. As a result, when she returned to Mount Olympus, we were waiting for her."
"Serves her right!" Zeus said with indignation.
Bor Mellistos said: "Quite," very politely.
"And then," Forrester said, "you patrolled this place for a while."
Bor Mellistos nodded. "We left about three hundred years ago, finally deciding that they had gone elsewhere. By the way, do you know where they were hiding all this time?"
"My guess," Diana said, "is that they were here on Earth, of course."
"Naturally, miss," Bor Mellistos said. "But where?"
Zeus shrugged. "All sorts of places. I ran a tailor shop myself, pressing and cleaning. I understand that Poseidon and Pluto entered freak shows—they were fine attractions, too. Pan lived mostly in the forests, doing well enough for himself running wild. Diana and Athena ran a small hairdressing studio in Queens. And Venus—"
"Please," Venus interrupted.
"Perfectly honorable profession," Zeus objected. "One of the oldest. Perhaps the very oldest. And I don't see why—"
"Please!" Venus insisted.
Zeus shut up with a little sigh.
"At any rate," Bor Mellistos said, "that's the story up to date. And now there's only the question of the Overseer positions. Would you like to fill them?"
"Who?" Venus asked. "Us?"
"Well," Bor Mellistos said, "you have the experience. And we do need someone to take over. You see, three thousand years ago your technical attainments were not large. There was little need for an Overseer. Now, however, you are nearly at the stage where you will be invited to join the Galactic Federation. And we must make sure you do not do any irreparable harm to yourselves during the next few years."
"Well," Forrester said, "how could we—"
"If you'll permit me, sir," Bor Mellistos said, "I can explain. You would work much as the so-called Gods did—but with no publicity, and a greater sense of responsibility, if you understand me. Earth would never know you were there."
"I'd have to—stay away from mortals?" Forrester asked.
"Exactly," Bor Mellistos said.
Well, Forrester thought, it had its compensations. In the three days that the Detective Inspector had been on Earth, Forrester had had time to think and to find out some things. Gerda, for instance, was getting married to Alvin Sherdlap. Forrester wondered what kind of love would let a woman choose a name like Gerda Sherdlap, and decided it was better not to think about it.
What did he have to go back to? History classes? Students? Even students like Maya Wilson?
Well, he was sure he could do better than that. He looked at Diana and became even surer.
"The remaining eleven Overseers," Bor Mellistos was saying, "will be along shortly. You will then be able to draw fully on the machine. You need merely follow world events and make sure that any—ah—regrettably final decisions are not made. Your actions will, of course, be very much undercover."
Forrester nodded. "This mass arrest of the Gods is going to cause an upheaval all by itself."
"Quite true, sir. But that will be worked out. I'm afraid I don't really know the details, but doubtless the other eleven who are coming will inform you more thoroughly on that score."
Forrester sighed. "About the Gods—what kind of punishment will they receive?"
"Well, sir," Bor Mellistos said, "it varies. Vulcan, for instance—the person who called himself Vulcan, or Hephaestus—will probably get off with a lighter sentence than the others. He was a mechanic, brought along under some duress to service the machine. But the sentences will be severe, you may be sure. Very severe."
Forrester didn't feel like asking any more questions about that. There was a pause. He looked at Diana again, and she looked back at him.
"Do you accept?" Bor Mellistos said.
Forrester and the others nodded.
Bor Mellistos said: "Very well. In that case, I will inform the other eleven Overseers already picked that they will be met by you here, on Mount Olympus, and that—"
But Forrester wasn't listening.
He had begun whistling, very softly.
The song he was whistling was Tenting Tonight.